AT THE MOVIES: Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is a thrilling adventure

By Doug Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Katy (Awkwafina)  prepare to take on the Ten Rings army in mystical Ta Lo in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."

As Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings begins, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) is content to spend his days as a parking valet in San Francisco with best buddy Katy (Awkwafina). However, a sudden encounter with a gaggle of powerful gangsters means that Shang-Chi can no longer escape his past. He's not just any parking valet, he's the son of Wenwu (Tony Leung), the leader of the Ten Rings terrorist organization. Not only that, but Shang-Chi has a lot of pent-up trauma stemming from the loss of his mom, Ying Le (Fala Chen), and his dad's abusive treatment towards himself and his sister Xu Xialing (Meng'er Zhang). An awkward family reunion is in store, one involving the ten magical rings Wenwu wears on his arms. 

Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) has to deal with unresolved feelings with his family in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."
Wenwu (Tony Leung, left) confronts daughter Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), son Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Shang-Chi's pal Katy (Awkwafina) in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."

Intriguingly, writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton (David Callaham and Cretton's writing partner Andrew Lanham also penned the script) has ported over to Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings his fascination with how people grapple with coming from abusive family dynamics. There may be magical rings factor into the proceedings, but Shang-Chi's personal quest is in tune with the kind of thematic territory Cretton previously explored in Short Term 12 and The Glass Castle. The haunting lyrics "Look into my eyes so you know what it's like/to live a life not knowing what a normal life's like" from the "So You Know What It's Like" scene from Short Term 12 might as well be the thesis statement of Shang-Chi's life.  

Cretton's exploration of this material proves as thoughtful as ever, especially in exploring the messy complexities of interfamilial dynamics, such as Xialing feeling abandoned by her brother after he decided to escape his toxic living situation. Even people who've endured abusive treatment are capable of leaving lasting adverse psychological effects on loved ones. Meanwhile, the true extent of how much Shang-Chi is unfolded through recurring non-linear digressions that make for a thoughtful structural extension of how this character is always opening himself up to the past piecemeal style. A concise prologue just revealing every facet of his past just wouldn't feel right for this guy. 

Wenwu (Tony Leung, far left) watches as Death Dealer trains his son Shang-Chi (Jayden Tianyi Zhang) in in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."
Li (Fala Chen, left) and young son Shang-Chi (Jayden Tianyi Zhang) share a moment in "Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."

An overdose of exposition in the second act provides some minor issues, but overall the screenplay for Shang-Chi and the Ten Rings is a thoughtfully crafted creation that never loses sight of the distinctly human plights it's hinging everything on. Those make for a great emotional bedrock for the assorted action scenes, which are a delight, especially the more grounded hand-to-hand combat duels. A big skirmish on a city bus kicks things off with a bang thanks to crisp editing and terrific choreography while all the tiny physical comedy details in a fight scene set thousands of feet off the ground. All the fights look so good and exciting that they made me wanna say "See all that stuff in there, Iron Fist? That's why your show never worked!" 

Another charm of Shang-Chi is how it oscillates so wildly from the intimate character-driven stuff centered on familial trauma to the over-the-top fantasy elements. The latter material is told through some absurdly gorgeous visuals that don't skimp on the bright colors, as established by a prologue showing the otherworldly domain Ying Le calls home. It's all so gorgeous-looking and I appreciate how often Cretton just lets the visuals do the talking. No need to intrude on a gorgeous scene, like Le and Wenwu fighting/sensually connecting, with ham-fisted dialogue. Even an apocalyptic threat introduced in the climax makes heavy use of bright shades of red and purple. Yay for comic book movies making use of all the vivid hues that their source material never fails to embrace!  

Tony Leung and Fala Chen star in the martial arts superhero tale "Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings."

On top of everything else, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings even manages to deliver a superb cast, particularly Simu Liu in a star-making turn as Shang-Chi. In his first-ever film role (discounting a supporting turn in the indie film Women is Losers), Liu's the real deal as a movie star. He has charisma to spare, is effortlessly believable in the fight scenes, and I love his portrayal of Shang-Chi grappling with his complicated feelings towards his father. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is the 25th movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but despite coming so deep into this franchise's history, the movie doesn't get by on referencing past MCU entries. Elements like Liu’s performance a deft mixture of the absurd and deeply relatable make Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings one-of-a-kind entry in this expansive series. 

A lifelong movie fan and writer, Douglas Laman graduated from UT Dallas and is currently a graduate student at the University of North Texas. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group.